Museum Polish Jews
POLIN -Museum of the History of Polish Jews, Warsaw
By Didier Bertin - April 18, 2015
This museum and its permanent exhibition are an obvious progress in the vision of Judaism by an Eastern European country and an acknowledgement to the Jewish contribution to his National Heritage. Poland is the only country to have undertaken the construction of such large size museum. The reconstitution of Jewish presence and related comments over a period of one millennium presence of Judaism is very comprehensive. The museum acknowledges also the problem of the persistent polish anti-Semitism that forced the survivors of the death camps to flee this country after the war. The museum reflects the start of a memory work in Poland similar to that undertaken by Germany. However, some aspects are to be improved, clarified or deleted.
I- The museum
POLIN -Museum of the History of Polish Jews is a Polish institution created by the Polish State through its Ministry of Education and Culture, the Municipality of Warsaw and the Association of the Institute of History of Polish Jews in charge of financing and organizing the permanent exhibition. Since 1991 this association is under the control of the Polish Academy for Scientific Research and in 1994 the Institute of the association became a scientific research unit dependent on the Ministry of Culture and Arts.
The Museum is to be considered "in fact" as a Polish public institution wishing to preserve the historical and cultural memory of a thousand years of Jewish presence now disappeared. Today only 70,000 Jews out of 38 million Poles remain in Poland i.e. approximately 0% of the population.
II - The permanent exhibition
The museum traces quite closely but with few gaps Jewish presence in Poland and seems particularly adapted to the young Poles who are unaware of this important part of the history of their country. They see Judaism through what remains of it i.e. anti-Semitism without Jews, prejudices, superstition and what says the very influential and very retrograde Polish Catholic Church.
Until the Holocaust Poland included 3.3 million Jews and 3,000,000 of them were exterminated; the survivors had to flee this country as a result of the pogroms of 1945 and 1946.
The effort of the Association of the Institute of the History of Polish Jews is remarkable, since the thousand years are well illustrated and commented without ignoring the permanent Polish anti-Semitism as far as possible.
The first Jews who arrived in Poland nearly one thousand years ago were traders from the southern and western of Europe. The Jewish presence has developed mainly when the Statute of Kalisz was established in 1264 by Boleslaw the pious, Duke of Greater Poland.
From 1241 to 1287 Poland suffered several Tartar invasions. Some territories of Poland needed to be repopulated after they were devastated by the Tartars. Teutonic colonized territories, from 1306. The Statute of Kalisz allowed the Jews to reside in Poland and to practice their religion under the protection of Boleslaw and thereafter of the Lords in the areas under their control. In 1500, 30,000 Jews lived in more than a hundred towns and in 1765 the Jewish population reached 750,000 people in over 1200 cities and Villages.
The golden age of Judaism in Poland corresponded to the apogee of the country when at the fifteenth and sixteenth century it formed with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Republic of the two Nations under the reign of the Lithuanian dynasty of Jaggelons. This Republic was very tolerant.
During the first half of the seventeenth century the Cossack Bohdan Khmelnytsky associated with the Crimean Tartars took part in the uprising of Ukraine and defeated repeatedly the Polish army.
Bohdan Khmelnytsky devastated many Jewish communities in Ukraine and Poland. The Republic of the two Nations could not recover from this period which was called "the deluge". From 1772 to 1795 the Republic of the two nations was divided between Russia, Prussia and Austria. Russia inherited as a result of a Polish Jewish population of 560,000 people which increased the Jewish population of Russia to 610 000 people. The Jewish communities of Prussia and Austria increased also for the same reasons, but to a lesser extent.
The waves of pogroms in the Russian Empire (including partly Poland) provoked the departure of more than 2 million Jews from 1880. 85% of emigrants went to the United States and the rest to Canada, Argentina, South-Africa and Palestine.
The declining and hostile environment in Poland allowed Jacob Frank (from 1755) to exploit the naivety of some Jews in distress and pretended to be Messiah. The Hasidic movement of the Baal Shem Tov (Israel Ben Eliezer) created in 1740 is a current promoting a mystical exaltation far from the Judaism on the ground of the same distress. The Gaon of Vilna (Eliyahu Ben Shlomo Zalman) known for his deep and extensive knowledge of Judaism opposed the Hassidism and wanted their excommunication from 1777. The museum indicates that Rabbi Moses Isserles wrote the Shulhan Arukh, which was actually written by Rabbi Yoseph Karo from 1522 to 1554. Rabbi Isserles was in fact the author of comments called: Hamappah.
III-Start of the Holocaust
Without considering the Pogroms that took place in 22 Polish cities in 1939, we can say that the Holocaust began as a systematic extermination action with the operation Barbarossa against the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941.
The retreat of the Red Army under pressure of the German army left the Jewish communities of the Baltic countries defenseless against their murderous mobs; then came aside the regular German army the mass exterminators: the Einsatzgruppen (Commandos trained to exterminate by bullets the Jewish and Russian people).
Raul Hilberg estimates that 900,000 Jews were killed from June 1941 to December 1941; other estimations indicate 1.1 million victims over this period i.e. an annual extermination rate of 2.2 million people. The annual rate of extermination of the Holocaust by bullets was similar as that of the death camps. The museum says that the victims of the Holocaust by bullets amounted to 1.2 million while most estimates including that of Raul Hilberg amounted to 1.4 million in 1941-1942.
The museum remains unclear on the determination of the beginning of the Holocaust. The Wannsee Conference was in fact a monologue of Reinhard Heydrich, which took place after the start of the Holocaust. Furthermore 800,000 Jews died in the ghettos victims of hunger and disease and were also victims of the Holocaust.
The Holocaust was as follows:
Victims in death camps
3 800 000
Ghettoïzation (Starvation and diseases)
Holocaust by bullets
1 400 000
Total of victims
6 000 000
IV- Jan Karski and the other vain alerts on the running Holocaust
The museum clearly indicates that Western countries were informed of the details of the Holocaust through the report of Jan Karski. He was a brave Polish citizen who alerted in 1942 and 1943 the United Kingdom (Anthony Eden directly) and the United States (President Roosevelt directly) of the running Holocaust. The Western allies had in fact decided not to give any particular attention to the extermination of Jews.
Jan Karski also a reported in 1940 that the Polish people rejoiced of the steps taken against the Jews in the area occupied by Germany while they were left free in that occupied by the USSR. The area under Russian control enabled many Polish Jews to escape the death camps by taking refuge in the USSR. The 1940 report of Jan Karski was unfortunately not mentioned. The museum however indicates that the Polish population was mostly concerned by the war and was deliberately indifferent to the fate of the Jews.
The museum does not mention the cable from Gerhart Riegner who informed the United Kingdom and the United States in August 1942 of the mass extermination of Jews planned by Germany. A full report authenticated by the State Department and the Red Cross was handed over to the US and the UK and an international press conference was organized in November 1943 to unveil the details of the Holocaust. The museum does not indicate that the intelligence services (MI-6 for the UK and OSS for the United States called CIA after the war) were informed of the Holocaust from the beginning thanks to the decryption work initially achieved by Polish mathematicians.
VI- Pogroms in Poland after the defeat of Germany
Despite the magnitude of the Holocaust observed after the defeat of Germany, the museum recognizes the existence of a wave of polish pogroms in 1945 and 1946 against the survivors of the death camps and the Jewish refugees back from USSR.
The museum mentions pogroms in 8 cities:
RZESZOW, IRENA SOKOLY, KRAKOW, RABKA, BOLESLAWIEC, PARKCZEW, POCIAGI. We have not seen the name of the city of KIELCE (4 July 1946), where pogrom was very violent.
It was after the Kielce pogrom that Polish Jews who survived the death camps decided to flee this country where anti-Semitism was irreducible despite the extermination of more than 90% of them.
Poland has inaugurated a new kind of anti-Semitism: "Anti-Semitism without Jews."
Anti-Semitism without Jews is the existence of anti-Jewish feeling without the presence of Jews to hate. It is based on prejudices, superstitions, false memories and the negative influence of the very retrograde polish Church; it is also based on a moral deficiency, inadequate education and on an insufficient economy whose product is very unequally distributed.
VII- Communist Period
The museum does not fail to point out that the Communist Party of Poland would have encouraged anti-Semitism without Jews. This was probably connected with the pro-Arab position of the communist bloc. However, the permanent exhibition was assumed to focus on the Jewish presence in Poland, and not on period of Jewish absence.
VIII -Years 1990s
The museum extends the period of the Jewish presence even to1990s despite the Jewish presence did not exist any longer. As a matter of fact the Jews represent 0.18% of the Polish population which is close to zero and marks an absence and not a presence. The museum wants to show that the overthrow of communism and the arrival of Lech Walesa permitted a reduction of anti-Semitism in Poland which is false and merely a political statement.
In 1995 Lech Walesa made two speeches in Krakow, referring to the victims of Auschwitz and omitting to mention that 90% of them were Jews. There was even a clear intent to build a Christian convent on the camp site. At the time of Lech Walesa some Polish politicians whose positions were not agreed were suspected to be Jews hiding their origin and acting as undercover agents. The museum would have better done to stop the exhibition at the end of the war.
IX Souvenirs shop of the museum
We have asked that the sale pins remembering the yellow star to wear on the lapel of jackets to be removed. This sale is clumsy since it concerns a traumatic symbol for the Jews, but we do not know if our request has been accepted.
X- Souvenirs shops in Warsaw today
Sales figurines caricaturing Jews holding a gold coin in one hand and a bag of money in the other is unacceptable.
Poles buying these figurines expect that they will attract money in the house or promote the sales of new businesses.
The museum is a great progress in the fight against Anti-Semitism without Jews in Poland and shows satisfactorily the legitimate wish to appropriate a cultural heritage that was part of the Polish patrimony for a millennium. So we can be optimistic for the new generations.
The Museum recognizes with courage part of the problem of anti-Semitism rooted in Poland in such extent that the few Polish Jews surviving to Holocaust had to flee Poland after the war to escape Pogroms. The museum should have limited exhibition to the period of tangible presence of a Jewish community (i.e. until 1946) in line with its official theme without going astray in era of Jewish absence.
Regarding the period of the Jewish absence, the museum should have a department devoted to the study of anti-Semitism without Jews in Poland. As we mentioned this phenomenon seems to be a combination of several influences such as those of a too influential presence of a very retrograde Church, prejudice, superstition, insufficient level of education, economic underdevelopment amplified by too much inequality in income distribution. Polish median wage is below the average poverty threshold in Europe and Poland is the most unequal European country: the richest 10% earn nearly "15 times" more than the poorest 10%.
The Polish politicians who succeed to deprive their citizens of the benefit of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union reflect a high degree of immorality. This Charter is compulsory for all member countries of the European Union but Brussels decided to exempt Poland of it at the expense of its citizens. Thus the new President of the European Council, Donald Tusk (the previous Polish Prime Minister) represents badly the European Union. His appointment seems to be only related to the position of the Western countries facing the Russian Federation in the Ukrainian crisis, with no relation with the interests of the European Union.